This essay focus on the category of Japanese paintings referred to as raigō or “Amida’s Welcoming Descent”. Starting with the historical context of Pure Land Buddhism, the study addresses the religious theme of raigō, and analyse how the paintings engage the viewer by giving various sensations. Finally, the essay concludes on the way these works of art relate and contribute to the spread of this school of Buddhism traditions in Japan.
Pure Land Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism was introduced to Japan around the 6th century appropriated as a part of Chinese culture, and was mostly reserved for the elite class. It was until 12th century, when Pure Land Buddhism was brought to Japan by a monk named Hōnen, that the religion became more accessible to the general public. This took place during the time when the formulation of original Buddhist philosophy had gradually completed, and different forms of rituals started to evolve, transforming Buddhism ‘from a civilizational religion to a cultural religion.’ In such context, Pure Land Buddhism in Japan established its independent cultural form distinct from China, where this school of ideas had been originally developed as early as in 5th century and systematized in 7th century. With the same focus ‘on the person of Amida Buddha and the Pure Land he created to refresh those who struggle to attain nirvana’ while adjusting forms and practices according to local culture, Pure Land progressively became the most popular Buddhism tradition in the country.
The following characteristics of Pure Land practices in Japan contribute to its widespread impact on the society. First, the devotional practices are simple. For example, one of the everyday practice, the recitation of ‘Namu-amida-butsu (南無阿彌陀佛)’ or ‘I take refuge in Amida’ is enough to clear one’s mind, and further enabling him/her to attain enlightenment from Buddha. Second, the soteriology is inclusive and attainable. Pursuing nirvana in the afterlife, people don’t necessarily have to forsake the world and live a life as a monk or nun. It’s also acceptable and common for the clergy to get married and have a family. The key to salvation is the persistent practice of Buddhism in everyday lives of the believers. Third, this school of ideas is accessible. The monk Genshin played a significant role in spreading the traditions of Pure Land Buddhism in the 10th century through his book Ōjō yōshū, or Essentials of Salvation in which he systemized and promoted nembutsu theory and practice. By opening up the knowledge and resources, Buddhism was no longer a privilege of the upper class but for every one in all walks of life. All these adaptations in Japan strengthened ‘Buddhist life at a grass-root level.’
Japanese Paintings of Amida’s Welcoming Descent
The paintings in the category of raigō portrait the moment Amida descend from heaven to welcome the deceased to the Western Paradise. The joyful moment is described in Genshin’s book Ōjō yōshū, promising the believer,
The great vow of Amida Nyorai is such that he comes with twenty-five Bodhisattvas and the host of hundred thousand monks. In the western skies purple clouds will be floating, flowers will rain down and strange perfumes will fill the air in all directions. The sound of music is continually heard and golden rays of light streams forth. In brilliant rays which dazzle the eyes, he will appear. At the time of death, the merciful Kannon, with extended hands of a hundred blessings and sublimity and holding out a lotus seat of treasures, will appear before the believer.
This category of paintings not only visualize the moment of religious ecstasy, but also further engage the five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – of the viewer, as discussed with the analysis of three following Japanese paintings.
This piece of art was painted in Late Heian period in Japan, portraying Amida and all twenty-five Bodhisattvas descending from the sky on floating clouds. The Buddha at the centre immediately catches the eye and humbles the viewer with his gigantic figure and glorious halo. In front of Amida sit Kannon and Seishi, welcoming and offering the lotus throne of treasures. Surrounding Amida on the back are Bodhisattvas playing music with flutes, drums, Sheng, Guzheng, and various traditional Chinese instruments, visualizing the harmonious melody celebrating the moment.
In contrast with Bodhisattvas adorned with jewellery, Amida is shown in a relatively plain robe. His short and curly hair implicates that he had given up his princely life and got rid of the illusions and of ignorance as human beings. The Ushnisha, the oval shape on top of the head of Buddha, symbolizes his profound wisdom and enlightenment. His pronounced ears show his listening to prayers of all believers. His gold body, blue hair, and the clothes and accessories of Bodhisattvas were all painted with vivid colours on silk, reflecting the fine and delicate texture and impress the viewer with splendour and glory. Plenty of lotuses are shown, either as the thrones or as decorations of Amida and the Bodhisattvas. With the surrounding swirling clouds, the viewer gets a sense of the gentle breeze, and may feel as if immersed in the peaceful sweet scents.
Also known as Fast Descent, this painting dates back to the Second half of the Kamakura period and is a representative work of art in Kamakura period. Here, the descending Amida and 25 Bodhisattvas are shown in an iconic, diagonal composition. The monk was sitting and praying in his dwelling painted on the bottom-right. All the way across the chain of mountains, the Bodhisattvas came to lead his way to the Pure Land illustrated on the top-right corner. Kannon is the first to reach the deceased to offer the lotus seat, while the farthest Bodhisattva is still half behind the peaks of the mountains. The tails of clouds and the depiction of floating clothes gives viewer the sense of speed, and even the sounds of the wind. The mountains and forests were outlined with exquisite strokes of different thickness, and the diminishing size of them from near to far shows distance and depth of the space. Besides the musical instruments and lotuses, the clothes of Bodhisattvas painted in shimmering gold give the impression of their soft and delicate texture. The glamorous halo and radiance around Amida express the light of enlightenment and dazzles the eyes of the viewer.
Painted in the Late Kamakura period, Descent of Amida and Heavenly Deities once again shows Amida descending on floating clouds, Kannon and Seishi leaning forward to express mercy and welcome the newly reborn with the accompanying Bodhisattvas. The massive number of tiny figures of deities on the right both enhances the heavenly multitude and provides a sense of distance and depth of the painting. Traditional musical instruments and the interactions between the players around Amida indicate the ongoing tuneful melody of the blissful moment. The use of vivid colours and curves for their garments capture the soft and smooth texture of their clothes. A sense of wind and speed is expressed with details such as the swirling clouds extending into the distance, and strings of “Doubans” (幢幡) flowing in the air.
Raigō Paintings and Pure Land Buddhism
The raigō paintings not only give a comprehensive visualization of the blissful moment as stated in Buddhist texts, but also cohere to the key features of Pure Land school of ideas. First, the theme of the paintings – ‘the karmic transition at the deathbed’ – is also the main focus of Pure Land traditions in Asia. Furthermore, the style of paintings also takes into account people’s perceptions and the social situation during that period of time. For instance, the Fast Decent reflected ‘people’s hope for a swift and sure rebirth into the Paradise of Amida’ during the political change of the newly Kamakura military regime gaining control. Therefore the paintings served as an effective promotion, conveying the core values of the religion.
Second, the attainability and inclusiveness were incorporated in the essence of these raigō paintings such as tenderer, human facial expressions of Buddha, more varied, rich colours, and freer, more dynamic compositions compared to earlier ones. By engaging the senses, the gap between the religion and the viewer are closed, and the viewers can easily imagine, be touched, or even moved by the experience of the divine moment. They would be more likely to believe that the teachings of Pure Land are real and that it’s possible for them to achieve nirvana. Therefore, the viewers would be encouraged to embrace Buddhism.
Third, these paintings enhanced the accessibility of Pure Land traditions. As these paintings were shown to the public, people became more conscious about the religion. By using relatable objects and scenes, they could communicate the religious ideas to everyday people without barriers. Together with Genshin’s effort, Buddhism in Japan is no longer a privilege of the upper class, but became accessible for every citizen. Pure Land ideas therefore could be understood by even the illiterate and the poor. As long as one devotes in the daily practices, every person can be welcomed by the descending Amida upon the end of his or her life.
After Pure Land Buddhism was introduced and established in Japan, the category of paintings illustrating “Amida’s Welcoming Descent” were produced according to the school of traditions. By illustrating the key figures and objects in the Buddhist text, depicting specific postures and motions, using vibrant colours, and focusing on details, these two-dimensional paintings are able to engage five senses of the viewer. These include the sound of harmonious melody, smell of lotuses, taste of sweetness, texture of clothes, speed of winds, to sight of dazzling rays, swirling clouds and the gigantic Amida. Cohering and elaborating the simplicity, attainability and accessibility of Pure Land ideas, these paintings in Heian and Kamakura periods contribute to the widespread of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, which has become the most widely embraced Buddhism tradition in the country.
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